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Facebook tries to read your mind

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A few days ago, Facebook disentangled itself from a nettlesome investigation by the Federal Trade Com
 
July 30 · Issue #358 · View online
The Interface
A few days ago, Facebook disentangled itself from a nettlesome investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into how the company violated users’ privacy. And then, with that matter now squarely behind it, Facebook on Tuesday stepped forward to share some information about its effort to read our minds.
Two years after the company announced its mind-reading initiative, Facebook has an update to share. The company sponsored an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco in which they built an interface for decoding spoken dialogue from brain signals. The results were published today in Nature Communication.
The work itself is fascinating, as you might expect from the subject matter. Brain-computer interfaces aren’t new, but the existing ones aren’t particularly efficient — particularly the ones that don’t involve drilling into your skill. Facebook’s approach relies on high-density electrocorticography, aka ECoG, which implants sensors on the brain and uses them to record brain activity.
And its most recent research apparently showed promise, Adi Robertson reports:
If participants heard someone ask “Which musical instrument do you like listening to,” for example, they’d respond with one of several options like “violin” or “drums” while their brain activity was recorded. The system would guess when they were asking a question and when they were answering it, then guess the content of both speech events. The predictions were shaped by prior context — so once the system determined which question subjects were hearing, it would narrow the set of likely answers. The system could produce results with 61 to 76 percent accuracy, compared with the 7 to 20 percent accuracy expected by chance.
“Here we show the value of decoding both sides of a conversation — both the questions someone hears and what they say in response,” said lead author and UCSF neurosurgery professor Edward Chang, in a statement. But Chang noted that this system only recognizes a very limited set of words so far; participants were only asked nine questions with 24 total answer options. The study’s subjects — who were being prepped for epilepsy surgery — used highly invasive implants. And they were speaking answers aloud, not simply thinking them.
If successful, the work will have important clinical applications — it could help patients to communicate who have lost the ability to speak, for example. Facebook hopes the technology has a broader use — enabling what former Facebook crazy-project chief Regina Dugan once called a “brain click.” Allow people to click through dialog boxes with their minds, she told us in 2017, and you create lots of interesting new possibilities for augmented and virtual reality.
That goal remains very far away. But that seems like a good time to ask whether any of this work should, you know, be done in the first place. Antonio Regalado’s piece on the Facebook experiment gets at why:
“To me the brain is the one safe place for freedom of thought, of fantasies, and for dissent,” says Nita Farahany, a professor at Duke University who specializes in neuro-ethics. “We’re getting close to crossing the final frontier of privacy in the absence of any protections whatsoever.”
Facebook, for its part, included a section on ethics in its blog post on the subject, quoting Mark Chevillet, director of the brain-computer interface (BCI) research program at Facebook Reality Labs:
“We can’t anticipate or solve all of the ethical issues associated with this technology on our own,” Chevillet says. “What we can do is recognize when the technology has advanced beyond what people know is possible, and make sure that information is delivered back to the community. Neuroethical design is one of our program’s key pillars — we want to be transparent about what we’re working on so that people can tell us their concerns about this technology.”
It has also pledged to have its research governed by an ethics board.
Of course, at this point, even invasive technology can barely distinguish between a speaker saying “fertilizer” versus one saying “synthesizer.” But it’s in the nature of these technologies to improve exponentially, often away from public view, and to mature before any real public conversation about them can take place.
And so it’s worth noting that Facebook hasn’t ruled out using brain activity for advertising purposes at some point in the future. In some ways, it feels like the logical conclusion of an advertising monolith. Its whole business is predicated on reading your mind however it can, whether by getting you to share all of your demographic data in a profile or by reading your brainwaves through a cap on your skull. In some ways, it would be weirder if Facebook didn’t seek to use your brain activity for advertising purposes.
Brain-computer interfaces would seem to have a lot of promise for medical uses — something that Elon Musk, who is also exploring the technology through his company Neuralink, is currently focused on. But they would also seem to carry with them a great risk of anti-democratic surveillance.
A futuristic headset that reads our minds to let us click through dialog prompts is all well and good. But I worry about how it might be used should the technology get much better than that. And that’s probably a conversation we want to start before Facebook and other companies make too much progress.

Democracy
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TikTok is exhibit A in Facebook's "we're no monopoly" case
Canada’s New Partisan Media Are Poised To Ride A Facebook Wave To Election Day
Here's where Facebook's record $5 billion fine goes
Trump’s Baltimore Tweets Don’t Violate Company’s New Rules
China's Beijing Kunlun to revisit Grindr IPO
Elsewhere
Gilroy gunman promoted white supremacist treatise on Instagram
Apple joins Google, Facebook, and Twitter in data-sharing project
Facebook design flaw let thousands of kids join chats with unauthorized users
Facebook Watch Draws More Advertisers
Twitter Adds 5 Million Users; Sales Top Estimates
The YouTubers Union Is Not Messing Around
Bollywood Rapper Sets Viewer Record YouTube Isn’t Talking About
Now Even Funerals Are Livestreamed—and Families Are Grateful
Snapchat rolls out first major global ad campaign on back of surging user growth
Playlist
Land of the Giants
Launches
Pinterest's New Search Tool Puts Stress Relief in Your Feed
Takes
Facebook Gets a New Committee
And finally ...
Do click through to check out the visual metaphor here, in which cotton candy dissolves immediately upon hitting the water. It is, as they say on Reddit, oddly satisfying:
Donwill® 'One Word No Space' Out Now
this video perfectly describes how it feels to make stuff and put it online. https://t.co/HDdQHv6jkl
10:05 PM - 29 Jul 2019
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and ideas for building brain-computer interfaces: casey@theverge.com.
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